Chef Aaron Barnett
Chef/Owner – St Jack, Portland, OR
It’s a beautiful drive from Vancouver down the rugged coastlines of Washington and Oregon to San Francisco. Perhaps less so when you’re so hung over your eyes are bleeding.
But after a two-year stint starting as a cooking school intern and climbing the kitchen ladder at Lumiere and Feenie’s with Iron Chef challenger Rob Feenie, Aaron Barnett says that saying goodbye wasn’t easy.
“It was a small kitchen with a really good dynamic. I really got along with the guys,” he remembers.
Now chef/owner of St. Jack, in Portland, OR, Barnett, says he knew making the move to he hyper-competitive restaurant scene that is San Francisco wasn’t going to be easy. It helped that he was ready to bust ass to make it happen.
“I did seven stages in 10 days and wound up at Gary’s (Gary Danko’s),” says Barnett, adding the owner made a pretty good impression during his interview. “I thought I’d be out in 10 minutes… fuck… he talked to me for an hour and a half. A good guy to meet with and chat.”
Barnett was offered a gig at Danko’s after the stage and, after epically wrapping things up in Vancouver, went on to spend two years there – starting out as a prep cook and working his way up to junior sous chef. “We did a lot of plates for a fine dining room. I learned a lot about consistency,” he says.
From Danko’s, Barnett took a sous chef position under Chef Sean O’Brien at Myth, then moved on to the Desert Sage in La Quinta, California and his first executive chef gig.
But after a while, the Canadian born and US-educated chef began to get the urge to move again. Could be he found La Quinta’s dry desert air – like some of his customers – was getting a little old.
“We (Barnett and his wife) decided to move to Portland,” he says. “I had a buddy from college who was already here.” He didn’t have a job lined up, but Portland proved to be Barnett’s kind of place. He says, “I was in a steady alcohol-induced haze, but I found a job pretty quick.”
“It (Portland) is this incredible convergence of really young people who really want to do some cool shit.”
The Original St Jack: 2039 S.E. Clinton St. Portland, OR STJACKPDX.COM
His first stops were running the late, lamented Olea, then the highly regarded 23Hoyt, where Barnett was fortunate enough to participate in a James Beard dinner. After a bit though, Barnett’s 'Excellent Portland Adventure' hit a speed bump.
“I lost my job in the economic downturn and when I started looking, well, there were no jobs,” he says.
A chance meeting in a dog park led Barnett to Portland restaurateur Kurt Huffman. Huffman’s Chefstable group partners with chefs, taking on the back end and letting the chef focus on the food and atmosphere.
The original location for St. Jack was a space in what had been a real dive bar with cheap rent and -– the added bonus for any restaurant owner – “a crazy landlord”.
“We decided to open up a really rustic French place. We had $50,000 to work with and my wife (a children’s librarian) did the decorating,” Barnett says.
St. Jack was pretty much an instant success, which according to Barnett involved buckets of sweat and a good measure of “pure serendipity.”
“We walked in with this incredible bar program,” he says. “We had these award winning mixologists, and (sommelier) Joel (Gunderson) who I knew from college.”
Barnett’s combination of inventive takes on classic French bistro dishes – like breaded, sweetbread-stuffed pork trotter – paired with wallet-positive regional French bottles and Oregon, direct-from-winemaker jewels, caught fire.
“The reviews started to come in and they were really good,” says Barnett of St. Jack’s opening.
“Things started going crazy. We were doing like 180 covers in a 40-seat restaurant. I had this crew of old guys in the kitchen that I knew from around. It was a total bitch-fest, but they knew how to do it. For a time we were a team of the oldest, best cooks in the city.”
A decision to open the restaurant in the morning as a patisserie, helmed by Pastry Chef Alissa Rozos (from New York’s Daniel), added revenue and also allowed Barnett to add some high-end deserts to his menu.
After a while, issues with the crazy landlord finally came to a head, opening the door for a move to a much larger space on Southeast Clinton Street. There, Barnett says he’s doing three times the volume and has been able to add new things like a shellfish program.
“Shit, now we have a bar with 40 seats,” Barnett says, “And here in Portland, 50 seats is a big restaurant.”
All in all, not a bad run for the self-admitted lazy kid who didn’t even make it to culinary school until he was 24.
The New St Jack: 1610 NW 23rd Ave Portland, OR
While running your own place isn’t any less work, Barnett says you definitely enjoy a freedom you usually don’t find when you’re working for someone else.
“When you have a classic bistro, people expect bistro classics on the menu. But beyond that, I do what I want. I love the fact that I can change my menu whenever I feel like it; like when new produce comes in,” Barnett says.
Of course, that freedom can be somewhat limited by other life choices you make – like the decision to have a Mini Me.
“The dynamic is insane,” says Barnett of adding ‘dad’ to the chef/owner job description. “I still stay (at the restaurant) ‘til the end, but then I’m up at 6 or 7. The business is very self-involved. Say what you want, but you do it for you. It’s a selfish life. Then you have a kid – you say ‘what the shit’.”
Aside from serendipity, Barnett attributes a lot of St. Jack’s success to Portland’s supportive food industry, especially in the early days.
“The first couple of nights we opened, it was all industry people. There is a really good community here,’ he explains, adding, “In San Francisco, there was a lot of shit talking. Here, people are happy to see you do well. Everyone in town knows everyone. I mean, fuck, we’re doing pop-ups in each other’s restaurants.”
Of course, community isn’t just something you find, Barnett points out, it’s also something you help build; like an initiative to connect Portland restaurants with local fishermen.
Barnett says the city’s restaurants get most of their fresh fish from Washington State, even though Oregon’s own coast is way closer.
“I’m working on a program with these guys who are two hours away and can’t sell their stuff in Portland because they don’t have the wherewithal to get it into the city. It just isn’t economical,” Barnett says. “I’m getting a dozen restaurants together to make it worthwhile for these fishermen – guys who hand dive for shellfish and shit – to bring their stuff in.”
It’s this kind of thing that Barnett says keeps him passionate about the business. And new opportunities keep popping up – among them the possibility of doing a cookbook.
Like anyone running a busy restaurant, raising a family and trying not to burn out in the process, the only thing he needs now is another hour or three in every day.